I think it was a few months back when I started communicating with those close to Salsa Cycles about my involvement in the Salsa Two-Four. Initially, I was to be part of a four man team that seemed destined to leave a mark on the race. However, real life got in the way and my teammates began to withdraw one by one. Real life has a way of reminding us that racing a bicycle through the woods is one of the extra perks that comes with this merry go round ride we've all got a ticket for. Finally, a decision was made, I'd ride the solo 8-hour version of the race. After all, I'm a 12-hour solo racer by trade, this should be right up my alley, right? As my thoughts began to wander about this new development, I dreamed of a high finish and even considered myself to be a contender in this fight.
Rule #1 in endurance racing, Stay Humble!
Rule #2, never look a course directly in the eye. You see, sometimes it's not the other racers that you should be afraid of, it's the course!
Excited to race this event in the Salsa colors, I began to take things seriously and I felt the pressure mounting in my mind. I could hear Kid's words resounding over and over, "No pressure". I've been competitive since birth, mostly with myself. Hell, as a grade schooler I would keep a scratch paper taped to the inside of our cupboard in the kitchen with month's worth of times written on them next to dates. These were the minutes it took me to run the 4 miles to the end of a nearby dirt road and back. I can remember sprinting to my driveway day after day trying to beat yesterday's time. So it goes...
I thought long and hard about racing at Afton Alps again. I used to race the Minnesota Series race here, several years back and got smoked every time. Finally, I told a good friend (Dave Schuneman, who placed well in this year's Salsa Two-Four 24-hour singlespeed category) that I'd never ride my bike at Afton again. I held true to that promise until the Salsa Two-Four this year. I rationalized that I'm a much different rider now and that I could handle whatever Afton had in store for me. I looked her straight in the eye.
Friday night was fun with a Salsa sponsored rider clinic hosted by Daniel Musto (Salsa teammate) and myself. This clinic was light and enjoyable, with a short ride around the course and a little Q & A session afterward. Throughout the 'ride around' I couldn't help but think, "Man, there's a lot of climbing going on here".
Race day was met with warm temps...really warm in fact. No biggie, I'm only in the 8-hour race and hell, I rode in Kansas, that's HEAT. The race went off with the LeMans start and I found myself about a dozen riders back, but it was impossible to tell who was racing in which category as we all started together. Excited, I rode hard early. I was on top of the bike and really pressing her for more, out of the saddle on most climbs. Soon I felt those matches burning quickly and I was running low. I needed to ratchet back now! So, experience guided me and I pulled back the reigns allowing myself to settle in and 'recover'.
Remember how I looked the course in the eye? There would be no opportunity to recover. Afton wouldn't allow it. The 'Alps' seemed angry with me as if I had offended her in some way. Her climbs got steeper and somehow longer. She went on to summon more heat. I began to suffer.
Then, without warning my right hamstring quivered briefly as if it was going to cramp. One cramp leads to a lot more cramps. It's as simple as that. I recall vocally calling out, "Oh no!" I knew they would come. They would come for a visit and then hang around like Aunt Edna who just won't leave. Soon I was pulling off the trail with inoperable legs. The 'lock ups' were popping off in both calves, both hamstrings, and my right groin. They were the sincere kind of cramps that give you your money's worth. I'm talking about deep, tightly wound balls of tissue that refused to let go, sometimes for minutes. I was in trouble. I poured fluids in, but as any experienced endurance athlete knows, when you've hit this state, it's too late, the window is closed. Returning from this abyss will most likely not happen.
Lap five brought me to the pits in a very negative head space. I reported to Amy and Scott (Danielle's husband and pit crew) that it wasn't looking good for me, I was in a bad way. They fed me information on my standings and I learned that I was currently running 3rd in my race. They bolstered me with comments like, "Every one's hurting out there" and "It's hot for everyone" and "I just saw 'so and so' come through and he looked terrible". 'Kid' Riemer brought me back around with, "Eki...No pressure. Seriously there's no pressure". But, there was pressure and it was coming from me. I had to get back on 'Big Mama'. I mounted up and left for lap 6, I had three hours to go. I'd been in this cave before, and I'd find my way out.
Now I want to tell you that I was rebounding strong on lap 6 and things were really coming around for me, but that's just not true. I was moving slowly through the course apologizing to Afton through every switchback. Thing is she's not big on forgiveness.
It was when I dropped down a little chute about to cross a ski run when I heard what sounded like an M80 going off under my saddle and felt that sick feeling of sealant shooting all over my legs. My rear tire was down instantly. I ran the bike up to a shady spot and had a nice quick repair with no hassles. I heard the tubeless-ready tire's bead snap back into the rim with the shot of CO2. I was good to go! One huge pull off the water bottle and a gel later I was mounted and riding smooth again.
Then, about 20 minutes later...'Boom!' Flat #2. The tube I had thrown in the tire was exposed through a dime-sized hole (that I never saw) in the tire. Out of air and tubes I was forced to walk back to the pits thinking my day was most likely over. However upon my return 'Kid' learned of my misfortune and quickly offered up his wheel. Ultimately, it was not to be as his wheel fought 'Big Mama' every step of the way. I was out, I laid down my cards with 'no pressure', literally.
My 5 completed laps was good enough for a 9th place finish. I guess everyone really was hurting.
Thanks Salsa for sponsoring such a great event and special thanks to 'Kid' for all of his kind words and support. Man that guy can work a PA. He put a smile on my face every time I rolled through.
Now it's on to The 12 Hours of Pitch Black Singletrack: the shining star of the WEMS series.